The presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke over the phone on Friday, a day after Syrian government air strikes killed 33 Turkish troops, significantly ratcheting up tensions between Ankara and Moscow. It was the highest number of Turkish soldiers killed in a single day since Ankara first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016.
The development was the most serious escalation in the conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces and raised the prospect of all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.
Nato envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a Nato member, and scores of migrants began converging on Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe after Turkey said it was “no longer able to hold refugees.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long threatened to “open the gates” for millions of refugees eager to flee to Europe unless more international support was provided.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy warned the movement of migrants to the West could continue if the situation in Idlib deteriorated.
“Some asylum seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move towards our western borders,” he said. “If the situation worsens this risk will continue to increase.” However, he added that there was “no change” in Turkey’s migration policy.
Refugees, meanwhile, headed to the land border with Greece, taking minibuses and taxis from Istanbul. Dozens waited at the Turkish side of the border gate at Pazarkule.
Others headed to Turkey’s west coast to attempt to reach the Greek islands lying a short distance away. Turkish NTV showed around 20 people clambering aboard a rubber dinghy at Ayvacik, northwest Turkey, in broad daylight on Friday and setting off for the island of Lesbos.
A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorisation.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the press on the record.
The latest crisis stems from a Russian-backed Syrian government military campaign to retake Syria’s Idlib province, which is the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria. The offensive, which began Dec. 1, has triggered the largest single wave of displacement in Syria’s nine-year war, sending nearly 950,000 people fleeing to areas near the Turkish border for safety. Ankara, the Syrian rebels’ last supporter, sealed its borders in 2015 and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees.
Turkey has had 54 soldiers killed in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province since the beginning of February, including the latest fatalities, and feels the need to respond strongly.
Turkey’s DHA news agency reported Friday that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.